February 18, 2013
BY MARK JAMISON
On Wednesday, February 7, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe stood before members of the press and the American people to announce that the Postal Service would end Saturday mail delivery and collections in August. An announcement like this was inevitable. No one who has followed the travails of the Postal Service over the past few years could have been surprised that at some point the agency would take a step so contrary to law and procedure that it would be the very epitome of hubris.
Over the past six years the Board of Governors and senior management of the Postal Service have conducted themselves with unabashed arrogance. They have manipulated what is essentially a crisis of bad accounting policy to pursue a long-held desire to shrink the breadth and meaning of universal service while eviscerating and degrading the postal network.
The actions of postal leadership over the past six years have headed the agency, probably irrevocably, on a path that will either lead directly to privatization or to at least de facto control of this national infrastructure by a few large corporations. The ideologues who have targeted the Postal Service for privatization will soon have their day.
A license to kill jobs
In leading us down this path, Donahoe and the BOG have demonstrated an unrestrained contempt for Congress, the rule of law, and most importantly, the American people. The senior leadership of the Postal Service has championed an attitude that views average Americans — and especially working Americans — with complete and utter disdain.
Over the years the Postal Service has been an entry into the middle class for millions of Americans, particularly minorities and veterans. In his press conference, Mr. Donahoe bragged — and there is no other suitable word for it — that there are 193,000 fewer workers than six years ago. Based on reported percentages of the work force, that means there are about 50,000 fewer veterans employed by the Postal Service, of which nearly 17,000 were disabled. Mr. Donahoe considers that progress.
While it is true that Congress has utterly and completely failed in its responsibilities to the American people with respect to many issues, including the direction of the Postal Service, that does not give Mr. Donahoe or the BOG the authority or license to co-opt a great institution. Congress may deserve our contempt, but this does not excuse Mr. Donahoe’s arrogance or his willingness to manipulate the law, the facts, and the American public in pursuit of unaccountable goals.
While Mr. Donahoe would probably like to see himself as a captain of industry, maybe even an inspirational visionary, he’s basically a plodder following orders. Behind him are some very practiced and practical schemers who see an asset held in common by the American people and believe that it should be theirs. They are determined to take this asset from what they view as an undeserving public and to put it to their private and profitable use. Pat Donahoe is simply following an irrevocable course set by others, “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”
The BOG: Who’s who and what are they up to?
At the quarterly meeting of the Postal Board of Governors, two days following the announcement eliminating Saturday delivery, Mickey Barnett, the current chair of the BOG, reiterated the Board’s strong support for the current policy. Mr. Barnett referred to the Board’s instruction to postal management in January to accelerate cost cutting, citing Saturday delivery as the first step in an aggressive series of steps. “We must run the Postal Service as a business,” insisted Mr. Barnett, and Congress, he said, must provide comprehensive legislation allowing the BOG to do that. Last year the Board indicated that it felt that the legislation passed by the Senate was too weak and insufficient in giving the BOG proper control and authority.
The Postal Board of Governors consists of nine members selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The appointed members then select the final two members of the Board — the Postmaster General and the Deputy Postmaster General. At any time no more than five of the Presidential appointees may be from a particular political party.
The BOG currently has five sitting members plus the PMG and the DPMG. There are thus four vacancies. Two of the members are politically connected attorneys; the third is the former chair of the Kentucky Republican Party; the fourth is the former chair of a large defense contractor; and the fifth was a senior aide to Vice President Biden. The President has selected three candidates to fill the four vacancies; two are academics, and the other is James Miller, a former BOG member who has advocated vociferously in his writings and testimony before Congress for privatization of the Postal Service. Confirmation for these appointees has languished in the Senate for at least six months.
Looking at the current members of the BOG, the appointees awaiting confirmation, and those who have served on the board in the past, it is striking how insular a board this has been, filled primarily with political operatives and insiders, folks who seem detached from everyday America.
It is also curious that there does not ever seem to have been a board member who comes from labor. We are often reminded that 80% of the costs of the Postal Service are related to labor and that the labor agreements are a large part of the current problems. Never mind that both of those claims are misguided. It does seem that an organization that is the second largest employer in the United States would benefit from a Board member who had a background in labor.
January 14, 2013
BY MARK JAMISON
The new year has begun, and the country is still waiting for Congress to address the problems facing the Postal Service. In the meantime, the Postmaster General blames the crisis on congressional inaction and the diversion of first class mail to the Internet. His solution is to cut services to the public, eliminate jobs, and dismantle the infrastructure he is charged with preserving.
On January 3, Postmaster General Donahoe released a statement entitled “Congressional Inaction Heightens Postal Service Financial Crisis; More Aggressive Cost Cutting and Revenue Generating Measures Will Be Considered.” Bemoaning the fact that the 112th Congress failed to act, Mr. Donahoe suggests that “legislation could quickly restore the Postal Service to profitability and put the organization on a stable long term financial footing.”
Mr. Donahoe goes on to point out the Postal Service had to default on payments to the retiree health benefit fund (RHBF), and he repeats the unsupported canard that the Postal Service is losing $25 million per day. That bit of sophistry overlooks the fact that most of the losses can be attributed to accounting gimmicks forced on the Postal Service by Congress.
The Postmaster General and Board of Governors can't control what Congress does, but they have added to the Postal Service's financial problems by engaging in a direct campaign to undermine the viability of first class mail through extreme service cutbacks and a constant drumbeat of panic and doom. In his Jan. 3 statement, Mr. Donahoe actually celebrates the loss of 60,000 postal jobs, the degradation of a large part of the postal network, and reductions in service to many communities throughout the nation.
In his book At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit, Thomas F. O'Boyle paints a picture of a corporate executive so committed to the soulless pursuit of profit that he would do anything to improve the bottom line and push up the value of GE stock. In his closing chapter, O'Boyle poses a simple question that we would do well to ask of the Postal Service: “Do businesses need a soul to succeed — a sense of purpose beyond just making money?”
The narrow field of debate
The discussion over the future of the Postal Service has been carried on over a fairly narrow field. Postmaster General Donahoe and the Postal Board of Governors argue that the fiscal difficulties of the Postal Service arise from the regulatory structure imposed by Congress. If the Postal Service is liberated from the shackles of regulation, if it’s free to compete, then it can succeed. While Mr. Donahoe acknowledges that the RHBF mandate is a significant impediment to the financial viability of the Postal Service, his argument is much broader, contending that the Postal Service must be freed from regulatory restraints like the universal service obligation.
Many in the mailing community, particularly the component of the industry that focuses on advertising, appear to agree with a great deal of what Mr. Donahoe says. They see the potential for cheap mailing rates if the Postal Service could shed much of its responsibility to rural America. They also see the abrogation of labor relationships as a potential boon to their interests. The mailing industry holds a view that is essentially that of American industry in general over the past thirty years — reduce costs, liquidate or outsource labor, and maximize profit at the expense of all other considerations.
Most of those who disagree with Mr. Donahoe’s vision do so on what amounts to a very limited basis. The unions and other employee organizations disagree with Mr. Donahoe’s tactical approaches to defining the Postal Service’s future, but they generally agree that the Postal Service must compete, that success will be achieved by accepting some of the regulatory strictures imposed on the Postal Service while loosening others, presumably maintaining those things which benefit labor while permitting behaviors that will enhance and increase revenues.
The politicians line up on the issue according to their ideological predispositions. So, many of the Republican politicians advocate for a Postal Service that moves more towards a privatized, lightly regulated model, one that more closely follows the model of the last thirty years of seeing value only in terms of maximized profits. Most of the Democrats appear interested in protecting their traditional constituencies in labor, but they also use the word “compete” as if competition, or what is often termed competition but is actually something much different, i.e. deregulation, will magically provide answers to all questions.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the discussions over the future of the Postal Service represent a concrete example of how stilted and narrow our economic discussions have become generally. We have become so enamored over theories of efficient markets and the value of unbridled competition that we have excised broader views on what makes for both a healthy economy and, more important, a healthy society.
November 26, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
[The following letter was recently sent to the Postal Regulatory Commission and Chairman Goldway in response to issues arising from the implementation of POStPlan.]
Dear Chairman Goldway,
I am writing to you directly but I hope you will share these comments with the other commissioners.
As you are aware, I was very critical of the decision in the POStPlan docket, not because the PRC failed but because the consequences of what was the ultimate result of the Commission’s legal responsibility fell far short of what would be the real world consequences. I think we are now seeing just how duplicitous the Postal Service can be as we witness emergency suspensions and office closures that are inextricably part of the POStPlan process.
There have been many issues that have arisen in the face of the implementation of this program. I was heartened to see your call for information from the public, although I think the reality is that without a specific investigatory design much of what comes in will be anecdotal. That’s a consequence of the system. Your willingness to follow through is admirable.
The two issues I want to address here are the two most common reasons given for emergency suspensions, lease or building issues and lack of personnel to staff an office. Both are, at base, fallacious and constitute an ongoing example of how the Postal Service uses stilted interpretations to evade its responsibilities under the law.
The PRC already has a long history with respect to suspensions based on building or lease issues. PI2010-1 was opened just to address these issues, and I would refer the PRC to the comments I submitted in that docket. The Postal Service has a long history of being abusive during lease negotiations. The tactics we are seeing today have been used for a long time. The difference is that now they are part of a concerted effort to close post offices.
As a postal lessor I was told that the Postal Service typically begins the renegotiating process about half way through the final term of a lease, generally from two and a half years to a year before termination. This logically would give sufficient time to resolve ongoing issues related to the physical condition of a building or, if negotiations failed, to allow time for the identification and acquisition of suitable alternatives. Realistically in the latter instance the Postal Service has never been particularly enthusiastic about finding alternatives, but as the Commission has seen in many appeal cases, communities are often more than willing to locate alternative facilities.
By shortening the negotiating process and by turning the negotiations over to CBRE, an outside contractor with a limited understanding of postal issues and perhaps with incentives that may not coincide with good faith efforts to renew leases, the Postal Service has cynically created “emergency” situations. Given the circumstances, we should be very skeptical of any suspension related to a failure to negotiate a lease.
We should also look very carefully at suspensions related to unsuitable building conditions. We should ask, how long has the condition actually existed and what previous attempts has the Postal Service made to address the condition? I think the Commission will find that in many cases the condition cited as making a building unsuitable or unsafe has existed, unaddressed, for a significant period. The condition may actually warrant not using a particular site, but is it an emergency if it is only being addressed now when other agendas are at hand?
We should also be very careful in examining exactly what conditions the Postal Service is claiming make the building unsafe or unsuitable. Are the conditions as described by the Postal Service accurate? Are remedies demanded by the Postal Service reasonable or are they excessive, designed to create the circumstances of a suspension? The behavior of the Postal Service merits skepticism.
November 1, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
Over the last several months the situation surrounding the fate of the Postal Service has become increasingly clear.
How can that possibly be the case, when Congress has utterly failed in its efforts to pass postal reform legislation, when mail volumes continue to drop, when troubling news about financial losses continue to appear, and when the agency has now reached its borrowing limit with the Treasury? How can such an unsettled and unsettling situation seem so clear?
The situation is clear because no matter what Congress eventually does, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and the Board of Governors have already won. Their views of what the Postal Service should be, whom it should serve, and how it should serve them have prevailed. The reality is that as the Postal Service has moved forward with initiatives like POST Plan and the “rationalization” of the mail processing system, the PMG and the BOG have degraded the network and its potential in such a way as to make a change in course not just expensive but impossible.
The initiatives to degrade and dismantle the network have worked in conjunction with a business plan focused almost entirely on advertising mail. The leaders of the Postal Service have set the course in a direction that cannot be easily changed. The Postal Service has always been an example of inertia; like a massive oil tanker, it changes direction neither quickly nor easily. The PMG and the BOG have displayed outright disregard for the advice of their regulator and total contempt for providing service to the American public. They have put the postal ship on a course that will inevitably result in fewer jobs, decreased service, and ultimately privatization.
Ignoring the public interest
The politicians both in Congress and in the Administration have essentially abandoned the American people in their handling of the Postal Service. They have allowed the stilted vision of the BOG — a vision born of the same views that have fostered the growth of inequality throughout our economy — to take precedence over the needs and welfare of the American public. They have sanctioned a continued attack on American labor through policies that destroy good middle-class jobs and replace them with temporary and part-time jobs with no benefits. They have set the stage for millions of Americans to lose essential services and an essential infrastructure, while creating the potential for abuse by a predatory financial services industry.
It should come as no surprise that most of those in Congress are willing to sacrifice the Postal Service to limited business interests. These are the same folks that have almost universally perpetuated the myth that “entitlements” — a term that insidiously demeans what ought to be basic social responsibilities of a civilized nation — are the source of our economic policies. These are the folks that insult and assault public workers as if a job in the public sector — one that provides useful and necessary public goods — is somehow less valuable or less important than a job in the private sector.
Politicians of both parties have embraced macroeconomic policies that result in the decline of incomes for the vast majority of Americans while ensuring that the benefits of society are unequally reserved for the few at the top. They degrade the quality of life and economic opportunities for the vast majority of Americans with policies designed primarily to satisfy the financiers.
October 6, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
On September 30, 2001, the management of the Postal Service published a document entitled Outline for Discussion: Concepts for Postal Transformation. As the title suggests, this document described the terms of future discussions about what the Postal Service was and what it should become. In April of 2002, the Postal Service issued another document, this one entitled simply Transformation Plan 2002.
In light of the current problems facing the service and particularly the problems raised by the recent advisory opinion issued by the PRC regarding Mail Processing Network Rationalization (MPNR), looking back at these two reports is instructive. Both documents question the very basis of universal service, and they are laser focused on a future model of the United States Postal Service as a privatized entity.
What becomes apparent from the 2002 plan, as well as subsequent documents that address the progress of implementing the plan, is that the senior management of the Postal Service saw the future in terms of a greatly reduced network. From the standpoint of retail, Postmaster Jack Potter and then Patrick Donahoe called for the closure of as many as 15,000 post offices. For the mail processing network, the vision suggested that the future was in outsourcing much of the mail processing network through worksharing and similar initiatives.
Finding love in all the wrong places
March 25, 1984 — my second night working for the Postal Service. I’m sent to the basement of the old WPA-era post office for scheme training, the exercise of memorizing the local office’s delivery network so I can sort mail to routes. The basement of the building is a confusing labyrinth of offices, locker rooms, mechanical rooms and the like. Having only been down there once, the night before, I get turned around on my way to the designated room.
I turn a corner and walk into what appears to be a break room off of a boiler room, and before me I see the Superintendent of Delivery Operations having sex with one of the female clerks. I back out of the room quickly before anyone sees me and find the room where I’m supposed to be. Needless to say, my hour-long memorization session isn’t very fruitful. My concentration is somewhat distracted.
During my nine years at that office, the events of that second night come to seem less and less extraordinary. I see a number of fellow employees fired for theft of either mail or postage stock. I see supervisors who appear to be drunk on the job, and more than a few employees have chronic substance abuse and attendance problems. There isn’t much discipline and there isn’t much organization. Those who work, whether they be carriers or clerks, are rewarded with more work, while those who slough off seem to escape much if any scrutiny. Often it seems that promotions to supervisory positions are based on getting the most unproductive employees off the floor.